China’s Vice President Wang Qishan, a close aide to President Xi Jinping and the former enforcer of the president’s anti-corruption campaign, is believed to have played a key role in the recent developments in Hong Kong.
Wang was in the southern province of Guangdong from Aug. 29 to 31. Officially, the vice president was there to make an inspection tour related to the protection of cultural assets.
But few believe that Wang would spend three days looking at calligraphy and paintings when, just across the waters, tensions were rising in Hong Kong.
After all, Wang has demonstrated a knack for bringing crises under control. In the months after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Wang oversaw the bankruptcy of state owned Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp, the biggest such collapse in China. When the Sars virus broke out in Beijing in 2003, Wang was tapped as mayor to contain it.
The handling of these issues earned him the nickname “fire brigade chief.”
In late August, a message presumably from Beijing spread among the Chinese diaspora. It went like this: The Chinese government will resolve the Hong Kong problem by the Sept. 13 Mid-Autumn Festival, the most important family gathering on the Chinese calendar.
The message began reaching its intended recipients about 10 days after a secretive annual gathering of current Chinese Communist Party leaders and retired elders concluded in the seaside town of Beidaihe, Hebei Province.
From the message, Hong Kongers presumed that the central government wanted to resolve their uprising before Oct. 1, when a ceremony and military parade in Beijing will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
But how, they wondered, did the central government intend to resolve the matter?
One video foreshadowed an ominous response. It showed units of the People’s Armed Police, or PAP, in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. In the video, the special forces were conducting a large-scale anti-demonstration exercise. The footage would go on to air intermittently.
The PAP units, under the command of the Central Military Commission and already right across the border from Hong Kong, appeared to be awaiting a decision from Beijing.
The protests began in early June with a single demand, that an extradition bill be withdrawn. The legislation would allow criminal suspects and people passing through Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China. Over time, the protesters added four more demands concerning the fate of those arrested in clashes with police and the state of Hong Kong’s democracy.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the bill would be officially withdrawn.
Beijing had made its decision. But it must have been difficult for the central government to acquiesce on a demand made by citizens, especially when the concession would prove street demonstrations to be effective.
Before Wednesday, mainland authorities had tried all manner of options to quell the protests. All proved to be ineffective. The unusual call to pull the extradition bill must have had its origin in Beidaihei and come at the request of the party elders.
Jiang Zemin, the 93-year-old former president, arrived at the conclave after attending the funeral of Li Peng, a former premier who died in July at the age of 90. Former President Hu Jintao as well as former premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao also are thought to have been on hand for the seaside meeting, where resolving the Hong Kong unrest was a pressing issue.